Friday, February 26, 2010

Remembering Miroslava Stern Becka (1926-1955)

by Alejandra Espasande Bouza

Originally published on February 22 of 2006 by

Dedicated to Ivo Stern Becka and Paola Stern

This coming Sunday, February 26, Czech-born actress Miroslava Stern Becka would've turned eighty-years-old, that is, had her life not taken the tragic turn it did back in 1955 when - to the astonishment of her fans - the actress committed suicide, abruptly concluding a reputable career in the Mexican film industry, and an emerging one in Hollywood. What better occasion, than that of her birthday, to celebrate Miroslava's important contribution to the world of cinema.

To understand the life and myth of Miroslava Stern Becka is to delve into her early years when Mexico welcomed into its shores refugees from a war-stricken Europe, such as the family of Dr. Stern, who arrived in 1941 after a brief stay in Belgium, Finland and Sweden.

In Mexico, Dr. Stern was able to establish his medical practice allowing a comfortable lifestyle for his wife Miroslava Becka and their children, Miroslava and Ivo. By 1945 the family was well-immersed in the social circles of the Mexican upper class, and as such, joined the prestigious Churubusco Country Club, where what began as a social affair, Miroslava's participation in a beauty contest, would catapult her into stardom.

The contest was known as the Black and White ball, and from all the contestants; Miroslava was chosen the crowning queen. In the midst of the much coveted social spotlight, Miroslava married Jesus Jaime Obregon, a young man from a well-to-do family. Unfortunately, the marriage was not meant to last due to the couples' 'very' irreconcilable differences. The painful divorce was overshadowed by her mother's death.

It was under these circumstances that Miroslava accepted an offer from film producer Salvador Elizondo Pani. Her film debut began in January of 1946 with her participation in Tragic weddings/Bodas tragicas. In the film, a Mauricio Magdaleno adaptation of William Shakespeare's Othello, Miroslava played the role of Desdemona, co-starring with actors Roberto Silva and Ernesto Alonso. What continued were a series of films where the new comer was given the opportunity to work with major actors such as: Arturo de Cordoba, Mario Moreno 'Cantinflas', Luis Aguilar, Pedro Armendariz and Pedro Infante.

There was something unique about Miroslava that set her apart from the very start, an exceptional beauty combined with a talent for impersonating an array of characterizations that ranged from the refined good girl to the femme fatale, to characters she came to embody best, those with mysterious qualities like that of Elena, a haunting spirit in the 1948 film An Adventure in the Night/Una Aventura en la Noche, or that of Tasia, the embodiment of death in the 1951 film Death in Love/La Muerte Enamorada.

If Miroslava's entry in the Mexican film industry had been a success, by 1950 a promising film career in Hollywood had already began to shape with her participation in The Brave Bulls, a Columbia Pictures production directed by Robert Rossen, where Miroslava starred next to Mel Ferrer and Anthony Queen.

To top it off, that same year Miroslava was featured in the July 10 cover of Life magazine, wearing a black Andalusian hat and a bullfighter's shirt. The magazine stated, 'After turning down more than 40 candidates, he [Robert Rossen] found something to his liking in Miroslava, an actress born in Czechoslovakia.'

As film offers kept on coming, the actress fled to Cuba in 1953 to film Stronger than love/Mas fuerte que el amor, next to Spanish heart throb Jorge Mistral. During her stay, the actress met the man that would be considered one of her most passionate flames, Spanish playboy matador Luis Miguel Dominguin.

By 1954 Miroslava's career was recognized with a nomination for an Ariel -Mexico's Film Academy Award - in the category of best supporting actress, for her performance in The three perfect wives/Las tres perfectas casadas. 

Also in 1954, the actress was paired with singer sensation Pedro Infante to star in Escuela para vagabundos/School for vagabonds, a romantic comedy that presented a well-structured story with top notch musical interludes. The film which opened in January of 1955 was a box office success, running for nine consecutive weeks.

That same month, when at the prime of her career, Miroslava was hired by filmmaker Luis Buñuel to work in the film The Criminal Life of Archivaldo de la Cruz. The film centered in the life of Archivaldo, played by Ernesto Alonso, an eccentric bourgeois man whose frustrating efforts to murder women drive the plot. Among Archivaldo's potential victims Buñuel casted actress Rita Macedo, who impersonated a feisty and salacious femme fatale; actress Ariadna Welter who played a virginal gold-digger; and Miroslava was given the role of the upbeat and wholesome Lavinia.

One scene of this film has always been associated with Miroslava's death. In an interview for Somos magazine actor Ernesto Alonso reminisced: 'We had a ten year friendship until 1955, when her death hit me really hard. The Criminal Life of Archivaldo de la Cruz (A.K.A. Crime Rehearsal) became a film of intense symbolism in my life. In it I cremated a mannequin that looked just like Miroslava and Buñuel wanted her to witness it. She got desperate and commented that she wished to be cremated after her death. Ten days after shooting the scene she committed suicide.'

In spite of the actresses' tragic death - on March 10, 1955 ' to the very present, her loyal audience has never failed to remember. Last year the Consulate General of the Czech Republic in Los Angeles hosted a tribute with the showcase of the film Miroslava (1992), based on a short story by novelist Guadalupe Loaeza. The director of the film, Alejandro Pelayo was present for a Q&A session with the audience.

Regarding the many theories around her suicide Pelayo - who did an exhaustive research into her life for the film - considered that Miroslava's suicide might have been detonated by what the film reflects: 'the melancholic feeling of loneliness, of nostalgia for her country, and her lack of love. She had a series of unfortunate love encounters,' explained Pelayo who also shared a fateful childhood moment: 'I was around ten-years-old and lived eight blocks from the house of Miroslava, in the same neighborhood, named Colonia Anzures, her house was in a street named Kepler, I lived on Shakespeare. When I heard the news of her suicide I took my bicycle and rode to her house to look at the scene, it was cordoned and crammed with police presence. It remained forever ingrained in me, never would I imagine that decades later I would direct a film about her.'

During the event Pavel Pochyly, Cultural director of the Czech Consulate, expressed his thanks to the nation of Mexico, and in special to Alejandro Pelayo, for documenting the life of the Czech actress, expressing: 'During the Nazi take over of Czechoslovakia the history of those who crossed the border was dissolved. It is thanks to other nations, and to other people, that we can learn about them,' concluded Pochyly making reference to the ignorance of many Czechs about the existence of the actress.

Instead of lingering in the tragic trying to fathom the reasons behind her suicide, often blamed upon a break-up with Luis Miguel Dominguin, it is best to place aside that ominous Bu'uelesque scene to remember her not just as a beautiful actress, but as an underestimated actress whose chameleonic film persona left a collection of truly remarkable performances. In the end, Miroslava's film legacy will live in the memory of her Latin American audiences, and why not, in the memory of her future Czech audiences, for once they discover her, as they did that magical night at the Czech Consulate, they will come to appreciate the accomplishments attained by one of their brethren, a fragile and talented girl from Prague.

Originally published in 2006